We had an interesting discussion this week in the Arlington Writers Group about giving useful critiques. As in any group, you have people with different levels of writing experience and that can–intentionally or not–influence the critiques given to certain pieces. I’d passed along this great link on Critique Group Etiquette by Madeleine E. Robins because I think it has a lot of sensible things to say. Still, as the discussion evolved something occurred to me that I hadn’t heard much mention of before:
Writing and critiquing are two very different skills.
This afternoon I finished my read through of Part 1 of my NaNoWriMo novel. The piece was 35,500 words long. I read through it on my Kindle and made more than 165 notes as I worked through it.
One of the most valuable things I’ve got from the writers groups to which I belong is to learn how to critique my own work. Critique other people’s work enough time and you really do start to learn what to look for in your own. When I wrote Part 1, I thought I had something pretty good. When I started reading, I tried reading with a critical eye, one in which I was looking to cut form 35,000 words down to 15-to-20,000 and to make it a self-contained story, and add an element of mystery at that.
What follows is a list of some of the comments I made as read through Part 1. They will obviously be out of context, since you won’t see the original passages, but I think some of them provide a useful insight into how to take a critical look at a draft of a story, and the kinds of questions I ask myself. To some of these I have added some additional comments to provide a better context for what I mean.
- Be more specific here. First drafts, for me, are often like sketches. In this case, I had a line that simply read, “It seemed like forever since she smiled.” My note is basically telling me to add color, to illustrate this better. Instead of saying it, so something to make it seem unusual. Maybe she will smile for the first time in a while and notice the color of her teeth–which will get her to thinking that she hadn’t smiled in a while. Bottom line is to take this out of draft form and give it life.
- Need to make sure this is consistent. This was a continuity issue, and the note is telling me to make sure that this is consistent with the state of the scene a few minutes earlier.
- This should show up later…. One of the many ways I indicate the placement of breadcrumbs that tie various story elements together. In this case it refers to a bottle of wine which I think needs to be more symbolic after a major event in the story has taken place. Now that I more or less know the whole story, I know that this will fit well if it came back into play later on.
- This is good because it is a nice segue into a complication. Okay, not all of my comments are critical. I find it nice to occasionally call out the stuff that works, too.
- Another theme and challenge to overcome. Just identifying themes. The note tells me this should play a bigger part in the overall story arc.
- Not sure this is a necessary complication in a novelette. Sometimes you have to pick your battles, especially when cutting.
- Too info-dumpy? I think this is self-explanatory. This shows up on a number of occasions. I take it as a challenge to rewrite the scene in a way to convey the important information without dumping. In second draft, doing this can be a lot of fun.
- This is probably a better way of handling the info-dump. But really: how does it tie into the story? Sometimes I ask myself stuff like this as a way of deciding if a particular story element is worth it.
- This is where the action in the scene really begins. Useful in cutting and getting to the point.
- Why go to this planet? This is one question for which I’m going to need a good answer. Here I’m trying to anticipate criticisms that editors will have, based on my past experience. This is a hole in the story that needs to be closed up neatly.
- Great line. I do have them once in a while.
- If I do cut this scene, at least this part is useful. The difference between radical cutting and surgical cutting. This story has both so the note helps me distinguish.
- I don’t think this character can assume this yet. Novice writers (myself included) often make the mistake of assuming their character has all of the information just because they (the author) has all of the information. I still do this from time to time and this note is a reminder of that. The character is question is making an assumption based on information that s/he can’t have yet.
- Might be a better place to end the scene. More tension that way. A read-through can also give me a better indication on how well my scene breaks and transitions are working and a note like this is a marker for making it better.
- I think I’m going to have to cut her as a viewpoint character in the novelette. I have limited space and I’m worried that too many POVs in a novelette will be confusing, so this note is a reminder of which viewpoints to cut out.
- I like this a lot but I don’t think it has a place in the novelette. Me being brutally honest with myself, which you have to be when reading your own stuff.
- Sounds a little too much like, “Well, you know, Bob…” Another way of indicating an info-dump.
- I’m ultimately going to need more technical details here to satisfy the particular audience I’m targeting. Another marker indicating where to ratchet up info as opposed to get rid of it. Sometimes, you need it. It depends on the audience.
- There isn’t much to his character that comes across. Need to think about ways of changing that. Okay here I have a character who is necessary but simply too bland and the note is a reminder to make him more interesting in the story version.
Like I said, there are about 165 notes like these scattered throughout the story. Now, I have to read through all the notes, move them into Scrivener in a way that they will be useful, and then I can start writing “Rescue”. Actually, I can cheat a little, because I already know exactly how the story is going to open and I don’t need the notes for that.